Mekhmat

I just finished reading a book entitled You Failed Your Math Test, Comrade Einstein a few days ago. It is a history cum mathematics book. 25 selected problems and solutions of Mekh-Mat entrance examination at Moscow State University (Russian Harvard) during 1970’s and 1980’s cover almost half of the book. Mekh-Mat is the Department of Mechanics and Mathematics of the university. Most of these problems are killer problems (some are even at Olympiad level). I did not go through all the problems discussion since they are far too difficult for me to do. But the interesting part is that these problems are actually used as a political tool (Ilan Vardi, one of the authors, claims that this page of Russian history is the only example of mathematics being used as a political tools). At that time, Russian government supports anti-Semitism and one of its manifestation is a discrimination against Jews in admissions of universities.

Hence, Jews applicants were given a harsh examination. Note that even if one of your grandparents is a Jew, then you would be considered also as a Jew at that time. The examinations could last for more than 5 hours not mentioning the difficulty level of the problems. Furthermore as I have said, some problems are Olympiad level, some cannot be solved using techniques which is covered in high school curriculum, and even when the student answered correctly, the professors would try to find ‘mistakes’ in the solution. Appeals were turned down unsympathetically and sometimes were answered illogically! Let’s say, the student’s answer was X and it was marked wrong by the professor saying that the answer should be Y. But when another student answered Y, the professor still marked it as wrong, saying that it should be X. Such thing happened at that time.

We might think that people whose vocation is related with natural science are relatively ‘clean’ people. They surely know that Pythagoras’ Theorem is true for all people including Jews! (Those who believe that statement imply there is an absolute truth) But what drove those professors to discriminate Jewish people? Firstly, by just knowing a truth will not be enough to affect your life. I hope my case has shown you that. What is needed is more than just knowledge; belief and love are also very important. Suppose a professor was born and raised in a communist/anti-semitic environment, thus he was ‘indoctrinated’ accordingly. Later on, when he encountered things which are actually true but contradict what he believed, he will not regard them as truth. He became blind. Of course this is not the cases for everyone and everything, but a good example would be Heru’s post about the Pharisees. Also let us consider another case. Say a professor didn’t agree in anti-semitism, but he was in Mekh-mat. He would still discriminate Jewish students for fear that he could be fired by the university (meaning he loves himself more than other thing).

I think another reason would be truth is not regarded as holistic in every aspect of life. Mathematics has its own standard of truth and so ethics, politics, etc. They are not connected to each other. Or perhaps, truth is just not appreciated enough. In my case, it is authority of government that really counts. Anyway, currently I am not ready to write about such philosophical matter, so I will stop here.


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